April 8th, 2012 / The Columbus Dispatch

Franklin Art Glass Has Survived Good Times and Bad To Become the Biggest Stained Glass Company in Ohio

By Dan Gearino / The Columbus Dispatch April 8, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A stained-glass craftsman from centuries ago would have no trouble fitting in today at Franklin Art Glass Studios. While other artists and manufacturers long have used machines to help with design and cutting, this German Village business does nearly all of its work by hand. A stained-glass craftsman from centuries ago would have no trouble fitting in today at Franklin Art Glass Studios. While other artists and manufacturers long have used machines to help with design and cutting, this German Village business does nearly all of its work by hand.

The company’s products include stained-glass windows for churches and other religious buildings, and decorative elements that you might see around somebody’s front door. Customers have included Wendy’s, which used stained-glass lamps in its restaurants in the 1970s.

The windows "tell a story," said Gary Helf, the owner and grandson of one of the co-founders. "A pastor can make a sermon on the stained-glass windows. You can tell the life of Christ from birth to death."

For example, for Christ the King Catholic Church on the East Side, the company made a series of windows depicting the Apostles’ Creed. Peter Labita, a deacon at the church, said visitors are ” captured by the beauty of the windows.”

Founded in 1924, Franklin Art Glass has a staff of about 25, which makes it the largest business of its type in Ohio.

Projects begin with a small sketch, followed by a full-size drawing. From this foundation in art, workers begin the part of the process that is more like manufacturing. They cut each piece of glass out of large sheets the company has in its warehouse. Sometimes, particularly for church windows, employees will paint the finer details onto the glass.

The pieces are fit together using lead connectors called "cames," which are then soldered into place.

Prices range from $100 for a small window to tens of thousands of dollars for the sets of windows for churches or schools.

Mike Whapham came to the company in 1974 as a glass cutter and worked his way up to become one of the lead designers. The process today is almost the same as when he started.

"There isn’t much change in the craft since the Middle Ages, just electricity and the steel-wheeled cutter," he said. He considers himself an artist and a craftsman, two parts of the job that he says are deeply intertwined.

The company is part of an art form for which the greatest period of expansion in this country was more than a century ago, said Rolf Achilles, an art historian and curator of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows in Chicago. Today, the largest trade group for stained-glass studios has about 500 companies as members, many of which focus on restoration rather than new work. At the same time, there are legions of stained-glass hobbyists.

"Generally, it’s not regarded as a high art form, and one of the main reasons is that anybody can do it," Achilles said. The most-innovative stained-glass art is now being produced in Europe, he said. One of the reasons is that western European nations have much greater funding for the arts. Another is that new U.S. churches are being built with few of the elements that were once standard, such as stained-glass windows. "In the United States, we have megachurches, with 30,000 people attending on Sunday, but the church is a shopping mall without a stained-glass window in sight," Achilles said.

Franklin Art Glass began with a Downtown storefront. The three founders were Wilhelm Kielblock, Wilhelm Kielmeier and Elmore Helf. Kielmeier left the venture during the Great Depression. While Kielblock remained, he gave up his ownership of the business in exchange for Helf’s agreement to assume debts that had accumulated, according to the company’s official history. Kielblock was one of the company’s top artists for decades. Meanwhile, successive generations of the Helf family served as chief executive.

When Gary Helf was growing up, his father and grandfather were both active with the company. "I’d come down on Saturday with my dad, and he’d give me all kinds of little jobs to do," he said. Gary, 65, became a full-time employee in 1971 and became the top executive about 10 years later. His father, James, 91, still stops by from time to time.

His daughter, Andrea Helf Reid, is a vice president and a designer. She often works alongside Frank, a cat who lives in the building.

Aside from the skills of its workers, the company’s most-valuable asset may be the headquarters, a 23,000-square-foot studio, warehouse and retail space that was bought in the early 1970s, long before the surge in German Village real-estate prices.

"This was kind of the dumpy South End when we came in here," Gary Helf said.

Franklin Art Glass has persevered while nearly all of its competitors have come and gone. It survived several deep downturns, including the recent recession. The company also managed the ups and downs of its association with Wendy’s. Sales to the restaurant chain peaked in the late 1970s, a time when Franklin Art Glass’ work force reached a high of 42 to keep up with orders. Helf estimates that his company made about 45,000 stained-glass lamps for the restaurant chain. That part of the business tapered off over several years, giving Helf time to adjust.

Today, sales are split into three nearly equal segments: religious work, which includes restorations; residential and commercial work; and reselling raw glass to builders and other stained-glass makers. The raw glass comes from a series of vendors, with nearly 2,000 colors or textures stored in the warehouse.

For visitors, the many sheets of glass sometimes look like an accident waiting to happen. But Helf says very little gets broken. "You just learn how to handle your materials, how to respect it," he said. "It’s like a painter. If you do it often enough, you don’t get as much paint on you."
Receive the latest product news & promotions